Monday, 16 March 2009

Metawriting

The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour: like so many of Austen's so succinct sayings, to be read with the sense something else is being said. For what are the bounds of powers of expression but the form of an expressive subject; and what is so fine a brush but the tool for exquisite perception? And what are those two inches wide but the waiver of that awareness that makes it so hard to write without watching the writer: the fetish of modernist authors was, after all, no modern effect.

Metawriting: condition of all would-be authors, and their curse. For two inches wide is too small a space to be seen past the bulk of one's sense that one writes. There are, of course, as many ways to cope with this bulk as there are risks that one just never will; but Austen's is a curious way, and works. Northanger Abbey, her first completed novel, does not try to escape its self-aware, self-conscious, stasis but looks what surrender will do.

Picture the scene: the common sitting room, the small writing desk, household life all about in and out, and nothing in view but oneself as the woman who writes in the common sitting room, at the small writing desk, and so on. Surrender! What is it that this woman writes, who writes? Mrs. Radcliffe et al...Gothic Romance, of course! Surrender! Just write what you see if you cannot see past it. Submit to the reader, every line of every page, that this story, which is not Gothic Romance, has nothing to say but that which it would say were it just such a Gothic Romance. And do not stop it at that. Surrender! Let the thinly drawn plot that would not run like this if it were the Romance it is not, draw from Gothic Romance its few small motifs: let its innocent youth learn a lesson from age and let threatening secrets uncover.

Surrender! So laboured, so much labour, I know; but with oh! such little effect: that two inches wide, space cleared and in view.

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